Letting Go of Books: Is it Even Possible?


Me, looking vaguely terrifying in front of our messy, three-deep bookshelves

I’ve been scarce around here lately, and I always regret that. Beginning last week I started the toughest edit of any novel (for me, at least): the read-aloud edit. It’s slow, slow, slow. But it’s the only way to catch errors that might not ever get caught. There’s something about hearing the words out loud that is completely unlike reading them silently. I always retain information better if I hear it, rather than just read it on the page. Reading my work aloud helps me take ownership of the work, and it’s almost like I’m reading it for the first time. Does that happen for anyone else?

A few months ago, I wrote about my affection for audiobooks. Lately I’ve found that I don’t want to be without one–ever. It might have a little something to do with the Apple AirPods I got for Christmas. (Which, in my middle aged way, I usually refer to as Ear Pods, because, really, that’s what they are, right?) They’re so handy, and stay charged forever, and only fall out of my ears if I fall asleep with them in. But I also have a bluetooth speaker I use in the house if I’m the only one home. My friend has one too and she told me hers is the Best Bluetooth Speaker Under 5000 in India, she loves using hers too. The little kid in me still feels very special when someone reads to me. It doesn’t matter if the person isn’t in the room, or if they did the actual reading a dozen years ago. So why shouldn’t I have someone reading to me all the time?

The book I started on my break this afternoon is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it years ago and found it rather tough going, but I’m loving the audio. It’s made me laugh several times in just the first hour. I didn’t really seek out Marquez. I simply scrolled through the “What’s Available” category on Overdrive, and it jumped out at me.

What does this have to do with (physical) books? Sorry, you know how I tend to meander into my blog topic…

The book I finished this morning was a non-fiction book called Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, by Fumio Sasaki. If you read and liked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ll find Sasaski’s book a rather logical next step. That is, if you’re very curious about the causes and results of the pursuit of minimalism. And possibly desirous of living in a 300 square foot space with…one book. While I love trying new things, and Sasaki is very knowledgable and has some brilliant ideas about what to cull from your life and why, I draw a hard line at books.


Our house has deep and numerous bookshelves, and I’m feeling overwhelmed simply by the presence of so many books. Our main built-ins can handle three rows of books, back to front. Not all of them contain three rows of books. Only about two thirds, or 90 square feet of shelves have that many. (That’s nearly a third of the square footage of Sasaki’s entire home.) I can’t even get to the second two rows unless I try. Clearly, some books need to go.

How to choose? Marie Kondo’s method is to put ALL the books in the house into a pile and touch each one to see if it still sparks joy. If it sparks, you get to keep the book/object. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not so simple. Sasaki gives many cogent arguments for simply getting rid of things, few questions asked. His main argument is, “The things we say goodbye to are the things we’ll remember forever.” He takes many, many photographs of the objects he releases out into the world.

What about categories? A gloss of my categories: Read or unread, books by friends, reference books, books that formed me at various stages of my career. coffee table books, art books, DUMMIE’S GUIDE books. Books received as gifts. SO many textbooks and homeschooling novels/story collections. Books my kids loved. Books on faith. Beloved paperbacks. Books I’ve published. Books I started reading and never finished. Antique books that belonged to people who have been dead for decades. Craft books, arts and crafts books. Cookbooks. Music books. Single-author collections. FIRST EDITIONS. Just today, as I was linking to the Marie Kondo book, I found a copy of the first American edition for seven dollars. Seven dollars! That’s practically free. I have it on my Kindle, and I listened to it on Overdrive last week. But I don’t have a first American edition!

There are only about fifteen books that I read again and again. That’s not even a shelf and a half’s worth. What would I do with all that bookshelf space? Something has to go on those shelves besides sleeping cats.

Both Sasaki and Kando write about minimalism being life-changing. And Sasaki is persuasive. No one wants to die and leave piles and piles of things for relatives to dispose of. Uncluttered space makes for inspirational space. Creativity can flow through cleared rooms. I’m a believer.

Then again, books are comforting. Books are undemanding, and sit quietly waiting to be noticed. Writing books is my dream, and how can I abandon the dreams of so many other writers? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t know it.

I need some inspiration. To cull or not to cull? Shall I take pictures of their covers and get rid of the majority of the books?

How do you feel about your books? Is it hard to let go? What’s your secret?




This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

41 thoughts on “Letting Go of Books: Is it Even Possible?

  1. When we moved across the country and downsized, I got rid of a lot of books, but a house without books on shelves … couldn’t do it. I now buy very few physical books from a handful of authors I love. Libraries and ebooks do it for me.

    (And I hear you on the read aloud. I found a nifty way to get my computer to read the manuscript to me–and the voices have greatly improved from robotic–and find that’s the best way for me to catch errors. Even when I read it aloud, the eye still sees what it expects to be there, and mistakes sneak through. The computer reads exactly what’s on the page, although there are some funny pronunciations, but those only serve to pull your attention back in case you’ve stopped focusing.

    • I agree with you that a house with shelves and no books is not an option, Terry.

      That’s a good idea about having the computer read. I will try that on my next short story to see if that works for me. Thanks!

      Now I’m paranoid that I’ve already missed things in the ms. Fingers crossed the copyeditor has my back.

  2. What struck me as add was trading a physical book for a picture of a book. Having a photo of a book I gave up would only make me feel worse. I don’t call myself a minimalist but I do a fair job of keeping a lid on stuff. Mostly because I HATE clutter. But I also hate living in tiny spaces because the tinier the space you live in, the more cluttered it looks, I don’t care how much stuff you have.

    As to books, I haven’t had to cull out much. People don’t tend to give me physical books any more, and I only get physical books occasionally. And the ones I get are intentional. I do have a collection of Star Trek Original Series paperbacks that I will get rid of one day when I have time (only because with age comes less ability to read smaller print, so I can’t enjoy them like I used to).

    Most of my book collection is historical reference, and I would not part with them because I use them (and it’s the only way I can keep my preferred century close at hand). Recently found a first edition of Dan DeQuille’s “Big Bonanza” and I love the cover!

    The only set of books I’ve debated getting rid of is my TIme-Life Old West series—none of the versions have the depth of detail on the subject matter that I would like (and they weren’t intended to) but gosh, I love the bindings!

    Lucky for me Kindle came along. Now if those 800 or so books in my Kindle were physical books in my apartment, I’d really have a problem. 😎

    • BK, isn’t that odd about the photos?! He suggests that for all items if you have trouble letting go, and says it’s a step that many people will skip. I think I’d just rather keep a list. But I guess that’s not minimalist, either.

      He has much to say about collections that made me bristle, too. Book series and single author series are ones I definitely go back to. Congrats on the DeQuille book!

  3. I love the read-aloud edit. And yes, it often feels like someone else wrote the story. Why is that?

    Books. In our small town, we have a trailer at the dump where folks leave “stuff” for anyone who wants it, from furniture and dishes to clothing and books. Last spring, I found a box of Stephen King hardcovers, all first ediitions. What a find! At home, I created a “King shelf,” and they looked great. Each book was in pristine condiition.
    Well, at the end of summer, my husband got into one of his declutter modes and he returned the books to the trailer. I was focused on my WIP and didn’t notice till the following day. As you can imagine, my heart sunk when I saw the empty shelf. We raced back to the trailer, but someone else had taken them home.

    Since that day, I can’t even consider decluttering my book shelves. My husband’s lucky he didn’t touch my first edition Silence of the Lambs, or he may not be breathing today. 😉

    • In our rural area, various dump sites used to be called The Creston Mall, The Kila Mall, etc. Unfortunately the county enacted an ordinance that bans taking items from dumpster sites. How dumb.

    • Oh, that is a true horror story!!!! (You know I had to go there.) I guess it doesn’t help to think that the books went on to make another King lover happy? Methinks they might have gone on eBay. ? Otherwise, what a great freecycle resource!

      Also, I always give my family a heads-up before I touch the bookshelves.

  4. I periodically give books away. Some to friends and some to the local thrift store. Not often, and never a book I feel a connection to.

    I agree about the reading aloud while editing. My “final drafts” actually consist of four passes through each chapter of the book: one read silently with no edits; I just read it. Then I read it from the screen sotto voce and edit as I go. Then I read a printed copy aloud and change anything that doesn’t fall well on the ear. Then, finally, I read it aloud to The Beloved Spouse as a proofread. It’s amazing how many things i find to fix even based on the different kinds of readings the chapter gets.

  5. Like most bibliophiles, I have trouble purging books. That’s why I make use of the library. I can get almost any book that I want to read at the local library, and I can order books from other public libraries and have them in a few days. When I go to the library (usually twice a week), the librarians have the books I’ve ordered via computer filed on a special shelf with my name on them. Very convenient. I love librarians. Sometimes, there’s a wait list for newer books, but I never have a shortage of things to read.

    I still buy books, especially as gifts, but I’m more discerning these days. I have to be, because I’m running out of places to put bookshelves. I don’t have any trouble clearing my shelves of paperback books that I bought as beach reads and have no intention of reading again. I do find homes for them. Mom’s Organic Market (https://momsorganicmarket.com/recycle-center/), where I shop, has a huge recycling center, and they also have a book box where people can share books. Nowadays, whenever I buy books, I try to find a couple of books to take to the share box. I balance the books coming in with books going out. (Well, I try.) I do get very attached to my books.

    • One in, one out. An excellent concept, especially for books. Sasaki suggests it as well. I love the idea of share boxes. My next decluttering round I have several little libraries I want to visit.

      “I do get very attached to my books.” Oh, yes.

  6. “Writing books is my dream, and how can I abandon the dreams of so many other writers? I don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t know it.”

    Laura, that line rang the bell for me about why it’s difficult–almost sacrilegious–to dispose of books. I’ll gladly pass them on to friends. That honors the author b/c that means I think their words are worth sharing.

    Another painless way is to donate books to the library fundraiser, benefiting both new readers and the library. Takes the sting out of giving them up.

    Unfortunately I let people borrow my favorite reference books then forget who has them, which results in inadvertent culling. That reminds me–who has my copy of VOICE by JSB? Gotta get that back.

    Good post, Laura!

    • I’m stingy with my writing books, but I’m never stingy with what I’ve learned from them and my own experience. When I do loan a book that I really want back, I put a bookplate with my name in it to help remind the friend. Of course, that doesn’t always work.

      And yes, great post, Laura! We can relate.

      • Thanks, Joanne! Bookplates are so cool. I’ve always wanted some, but I couldn’t bring myself to put them in books. Can’t turn corners down on pages or highlight, either. Obviously, I was potty-trained too early. ?

        • I don’t turn the corners down or highlight, either. I don’t normally do bookplates, either, but someone gave me some as a gift once (which I use when I loan out hardcover books).

    • I immediately want to tell you to stop lending your precious reference books, Debbie! Surely there are actual libraries other writers can turn to. But you’re obviously a generous person, and I know how hard it can be to say no.

      Library fundraisers are the best–and they almost always are ready to accept books.

      Thanks for the kind words. xx

  7. This is right up my alley because I am a minimalist, always had a leaning that way. I’m not the 300 square foot kind, but minimalism comes in all varieties. I’ll share the book categories that work for me.

    Paperbacks: I read them and recycle the bad ones and pass along the good ones. Paperbacks won’t stand the test of time, so it’s okay to let them go.
    Hardcovers that aren’t made well: Treated just like the paperbacks.
    Hardcovers that are made well: Donate to charity sales each spring.
    Gorgeous books: Whether they’re old classics bound in leather with gold leafing or newer books with fabulous cover art, they stay. There aren’t too many of these, but still enough to fill up the living room shelves.
    Gifted books: Doesn’t matter the source. Genuinely thank the person, read it, and treat it like the paperback or hardcover it is.
    Sentimental books: If it’s a sentimental book because of the story, post an online review, then treat the book like the paperback or hardcover it is. If it’s a sentimental book because the author is a BFF, keep it, but just remember BFF’s are super special and rare people. It’s not like you can have 20 BFF’s.

    I can tell I’ve kept the right books. They are ones I regularly dust, rotate (so they don’t slump to one side), and gently handle when I pull them off the shelf.

    Laura, if you’re tempted to Konmari the heck out of your shelves and you have some that are three-deep, don’t do the books all at once. It’d be too overwhelming. I suggest you just try all the books on one column of shelves and see how it goes.

    Just one more note on this REALLY long comment. I think too many books look like visual clutter, making it harder for me to concentrate, but others say that extra books in a room feel like the room is welcoming them with a hug, and that’s fine, too.

    Hope that helps.

    • Priscilla, this is a wonderful post in itself. Thank you so much. Your list is a definite keeper, and an excellent reminder that books themselves can be separated from the emotions we attach to them.

      You saved me days worth of angst over Konmari-ing my shelves. One column at a time is definitely enough. Yay!

  8. An alllergy to house dust and the slowly disintegrating dust created from paper were my wake up call to do a massive removal. The novels from my English major days were the easiest to let go since most are now available for free at Gutenberg. The rest I tried to find the proper homes for. Massive flooding in my state that wiped out dozens of libraries was another good reason to give away all those popular novels that I hadn’t let go. I figured the poor people who had lost their homes needed to be entertained far more than I did. All the research and writing books for my novels and writing courses I taught went to my library which had the first dips for their shelves and the rest went to their fundraising sales. The books I kept, mainly signed books from friends, went into some barrister bookcases to help with the dust. The only books I buy these days are ebooks for me. Paper books are strictly for presents. No, this wasn’t easy, but it proved to be the right and smart thing to do.

    • That sounds like a huge wake-up call, Marilyn. I love the idea that your most precious books are behind glass on attractive shelves where you can admire them without stress.

      “Proper homes.” An important concept for me, too. I have only pitched moldy or otherwise degraded books into the garbage.

      Don’t you love that so many classics are available for free?! We could spend the rest of our lives reading them and never be bored. Remarkable.

  9. I feel for you, Laura. Like Terry, I had to let go of too many books when I moved cross country. Including complete sets of a couple of my favorite series. Once I settled into my new home, I resumed buying books as fast as I could.

    And I hate to let books go. To the point where I ended up with all my bookshelves overflowing, stacks in every corner of every room, a chest of drawers full of them, and piles I navigated around in my office. I realized they were overwhelming me. Not just in the rate of accumulation, but in the feeling of having no room to breathe.

    I’ve started culling everything I won’t read again. And I’m surprised at how many of those books wouldn’t hold my interest a second time. Tastes and interests change, and that’s good. It means I’m still growing mentally (I hope).

    I intended to donate the boxes and boxes of books to a rural library, hoping they could fill their shelves with what they wanted and then sell the rest. But that fell through. So a local church raising funds for building repairs will haul over a thousand books away for a big sale in June. I’ve enjoyed every word in these books, some more than others. Now I can set them free to delight new readers. And my best novel friends along with those of author friends, and copies of novels I’ve edited will be waiting on my decluttered shelves.

    • The church sale sounds like an excellent backup plan, Suzanne. A thousand+ books will be a great windfall for them, and the books will bring twice the happiness when their proceeds show up as new construction.

      One of Sasaki’s tips is to ask yourself if you would by the item you’re considering getting rid of again. I think it perhaps applies doubly to books. If one isn’t going to read it again (and it’s not a book by a friend, etc), then it seems a no-brainer to send it out into the world!

  10. Funny you should mention Kondo’s book. I won’t say it changed my life but it sure made it neater, especially when we moved recently. The thing she says about not keeping stuff around that doesn’t bring you “joy” sounds dumb and touchy-feely. But damn, it works. That’s how, when we moved, I pared down my books, skinny jeans, never-used cookware, ugly tchotchkes and my bread-making machine, which was the size of a VW bug. (Alert: There’s these great places called bakeries. That’s why my portion of the walk-in closet takes up one-fourth compared to the husband’s share. (Why did I hang onto that size 2 black dress for ten years?? It only made me angry and sad every time I looked at it until I set it free at the consignment shop. Now it’s some other woman’s problem).

    And her “trick” about storing sweaters and t-shirts in drawers is brilliant. (don’t stack them horizontally like pancakes; fold them and line them up like books spines on a shelf so you can “read” each one and just pull it out…duh.)

    I was helping my sister clean out her condo a while back and kept holding stuff out and saying, “Does this bring you joy?” She finally got mad and said, “YOU are not bringing me joy. Stop asking me that.” But now she admits it works, including getting rid of some toxic people in life.

    To quote that great eastern philosopher George Carlin: “That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.”

    • The Carlin quote doesn’t come up specifically in Sasaki’s book, but he says much the same thing. He delves deeply into our motivations for acquiring more and more stuff.

      I’m with you on the Kondo joy aspect. I get a little freaked out about how she talks to the items, but then animism is an aspect of some areas of Japanese culture. Two years ago, when I first read her book, I got my drawers in order and have kept them that way. And I never strangle my socks, lol. You know you did your sister a huge favor!

      Decluttering is one reason I don’t mind moving. I had been a FlyLady devotee for a couple of years before we left Virginia back in 2006. We donated crazy amounts of clothes, thingys, and furniture. It was nice not to have to pay to move it.

      *whispers* I might have a couple size 4 St. John dresses that fit me for about 5 minutes that I can’t bear to part with.

  11. My Dad was a librarian. The love of books–the real ones, printed on paper with interesting covers and stories, information, puzzles, mysteries, love, God, fencing (both with foils and the kind you put up around your house), children and babies, baseball, Doo Wop music groups, cooking chicken, so much and so on–is as much a part of me as my eyes and ears. In this regard, I am a true son of my father.

    I loath the thought of abandoning books, though I’ve had to do it on occasions. I always think of the work that writers, artists, designers, editors, and researchers have put into them. So why put another medium between them, their information or stories, and me? My forefathers fought long and hard against the infusion of Europeans with their wagons and their odd-looking things, habits, and their strange, strange clothes. I wage a similar battle against the new, the cool, the weird, the alien gimmicks, gadgets, and made-in-China electric stuff that tries to separate me from the simple book.

    Fum, fie, and fee. Away with dastardly things that interrupt my reading . . . of books.

    • First, your dad was a librarian?! What a rockstar. I’d much rather have had a librarian for a dad than an actual rockstar.

      And it is important to acknowledge the contributions that everyone involved in the researching, writing, and publishing of books makes. You’re engaged in a very honorable undertaking. Protect the books!

  12. I may give books away, but I only THROW books away when they are too tattered to be read again. That said, I have my original Black Beauty, spineless, pages falling out, tied together with a blue ribbon.

    I have so few books that I will ever reread, so when I finish one that I don’t need for research, or was written/signed by a friend, I put them in boxes for Goodwill. I almost never keep books my book club reads. Not because they aren’t good, but I have no room.

    So, you asked if it’s hard to get rid of books. Some, yes. Most, no, because I know they will go to new good homes.

    • You make me wish I’d tied up my decrepit Jane Eyre paperback with ribbons and tucked it away. I bought it with my own money at the Scholastic Book Fair in 6th grade. I think it got decluttered in the last move. But I do recall giving it a fond send-off. And my daughter had read it many times as well.

      Thanks for sharing the image of your Black Beauty keepsake, Betsy.

  13. The books on my shelves are like friends. My oldest ones belonged to my mother. I have her Nancy Drews from the 20s and 30s. Also some Honey Bunches from about the same time. And a Last of the Mohicans with NC Wyeth’s prints. Plus the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1952 that looks so nice on the shelves. The Ones I’ve added begin from the 60s. Looking at them all is like seeing decades of family history.
    I agree, Laura, about hurting feelings. I feel the same way. I respect the effort it takes to put pages between covers.

    • The Honey Bunches were from the 20s. The Nancy Drews from the 30s. I’ve got to quit using my mind to remember things.

    • What a treasure trove, Laurie. The Last of the Mohicans with the Wyeth prints must be something to see. And original Nancy Drews!!!! It sounds like you’ve curated your bookshelves to be just what you want them to be, and truly honor the books.

  14. I have a huge library of unread hardcovers I’m saving for the zombie apocalypse. I figure knowledge will be currency. Seriously, being surrounded by books makes me happy. I Kondo the rest of my life and house, but leave my books alone, thank you! ?

    • So much great information on those shelves. But I think you’re remiss in not adding that they work as art, too, because I happen to know you have them artfully shelved by color!

  15. Laura, you just don’t know how much I needed this. We’ve just listed our house and this will be our 26th move. I started with the bookshelves in my garage, I have so many. Before this move, I gave away boxes of books, it was so hard! But this time I’m finding it a little easier to let go. I’ve already donated over 300 books to our local thrift store.

    Since we live on the beach, lots of tourists visit these stores and books are a big hit. I feel like I’m sharing and not throwing them away.

    What’s difficult for me are the books with special memories either from my childhood or my children and those books that have profoundly touched or changed my life. I have several that I’ve read so many times, they are loose papers.

    One, I’ll never get rid of reading Little Women at age 10 opened my eyes to the idea that someday I could be a writer like Jo.

    I’ve been downright grumpy this week going through things. Part of me hates change. Books have always been my friends, to let them go feels so personal but I can’t take 5 full bookshelves with me to the next place. My fix for this is Kindle and Audible, it’s been my salvation.

    Reading this gave me such a peace of mind knowing that I’m not the only one who loves books and struggles to get rid of them. So many helpful ideas too! I think I’ll purchase a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up…. oops there I go again. I need help.

    We do have a neighborhood book share library. Each day I walk past it, there are new books, I think that’s a great idea. I also have a group of friends that share books once a month and when the original book comes back, I donate it to the thrift store. We call ourselves the BB’s (Book Babes). This has helped to curb the habit of buying books plus it’s been a lot of fun.

    Good luck!

    • 26 moves! Wow! That’s a lot of effort, especially when it comes to moving books. They always end up being the heaviest boxes.

      The good news is that Kondo’s book is just as good on Kindle as it is on paper. Plus you won’t have to use post-its to bookmark the best pages.

      Wherever you move, take advantage of the local library for both ebooks and audiobooks. I have both Overdrive and Hoopla–libraries have saved me thousands of dollars over the past couple of years.

      I like FlyLady’s position that by letting go of things we don’t need, we are blessing others with them. Happy decluttering–you can do this!

  16. My wife and I moved to China two years ago and purged 98% of our possessions. The books were probably the most difficult to part with. My wife sat and cried over her books as she made the decisions about which few to bring with us.

    Our entire lives had to fit into four suitcases, so anything that came with us meant something else couldn’t. Now, our lives have become a bit transient and we know a big move to another country will happen every few years. So, we make a point to not start collecting books again since they are so hard to part with later.

    We have become big users of e-books. Our Kindles get regular use.

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